The Leisure Principle: a duet of bass harmonica and bass guitar produces eccentric and funky minimalist art

Otto Willberg, The Leisure Principle, Australia, Black Truffle Records, BT106 vinyl LP (2023)

Based in London, Otto Willberg is an improvising sound artist with an apparent soft spot for bass instruments. Probably about time too, that someone is finally giving the humble bass guitar and other bass instruments the lead roles they always dreamt of, instead of always having to hover somewhere near the drum kit and the row of Marshall amps at the back of the stage while other instruments are out the front enjoying the limelight and the odd tossed beer can or two. Willberg spends his time as a musician and composer playing acoustic and electric bass in free improv settings and with various bands such as Historically Fucked and Charles Hayward’s Abstract Concrete. He has released a fair few solo recordings in the last several years but “The Leisure Principle” seems to be his first solo release for Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle label.

On “The Leisure Principle”, Willberg’s choice of instruments is mostly limited to a heavily filtered bass harmonica and electric bass. Opening track “Reap What You Sow” features a single-note bass harmonica loop undulating under a bass solo and the result is a funky pulsating conversation that occasionally turns into bickering and then making up, only to fall into another argument. The argument is hushed when guest musician Sam Andreae sweeps across the scene with a melodica (a handheld free-reed instrument) but the two bass instruments assert themselves later in the track and finish off their discussion.

All six songs on the album turn out to be surprisingly melodic and rhythmic but in different ways. On “Shadow Came Into The Eyes As The Earth Turned On Its Axis”, the bass guitar provides both rhythm, beat and melody loop in a sometimes grumpy mood while a quavering effect sidles into the music and ends up taking over it. “Mollusk” starts as a watery piece of bass arpeggio chords that then wander through the dark and sometimes moody and melancholy soundscape. “Wetter” is a growling, grumbling workout against a background of uneasy and slightly foreboding atmosphere. “Had We But World Enough And More Time” is a minimalist R&B funk piece that might have stepped straight out of early 1970s through a time machine with its lively bass guitar melody. It’s a very amusing song as the bass guitar navigates its way through a series of stern drone zinger effects and comes out unabashed by all the competition. The wandering continues in closing track “Licker” where a more insistent looping counter-effect tries to hog all the attention away from the lively melody.

For an album called “The Leisure Principle”, it sure doesn’t seem all that laidback and leisurely; the bass guitar and harmonica actually seem to be doing a lot of work which turns out to be very droll and comic. Though the instruments are very busy, at the same time the music is very minimalist, relying on music loops to structure songs while effects and other melodies glide or dance over the top. Easy to listen to, the entire album ends up with a very lively and witty sense of humour and a warm and eccentric charm.